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MarketWatch First Take: The cloud boom has hit its stormiest moment yet, and it is costing investors billions

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The cloud boom has finally reached a resting altitude, but Wall Street is doing anything but resting.

Amazon.com Inc.
AMZN,
-4.06%
,
the original pioneer in cloud computing, confirmed Thursday what rivals Microsoft Corp.
MSFT,
-1.98%

and Alphabet Inc.
GOOGL,
-2.85%

GOOG,
-2.34%

suggested with their earnings reports earlier in the week: Cloud-computing growth has finally reached a plateau, as companies around the world cut costs to address the slowing economy. Amazon Web Services, the backbone of Amazon’s profit, saw revenue hit its slowest growth on record, and executives said that it will slow down even more.

“The back end of the quarter, we were more in the mid-20% growth range, so carry that forecast to the fourth quarter — we are not sure how it’s going to play out, but that’s generally our assumption,” Amazon Chief Financial Officer Brian Olsavsky told analysts after reporting quarterly growth of 27.5%.

It was a jarring slowdown for AWS, which recorded 33% growth in the second quarter, 37% growth in the first, 37% in the fourth quarter of 2021 and 39% growth a year ago. It shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise, though: Smaller rivals reported similar slowdowns earlier in the week.

Microsoft’s Azure cloud business grew 35% in its fiscal first quarter, down from 40% in the previous quarter and 50% the year before, and executives predicted another five-percentage-point fall this quarter. Alphabet’s Google Cloud is also slowing, even though it was the bright spot of double-digit growth in the disappointing quarter for the internet ad and search giant. Google’s Cloud Services grew 37.6% in the third quarter, up from 35.6% growth in the second quarter, but down from 43.8% in the first quarter, and 44.6% in the fourth quarter.

Regular readers of this column should also not be surprised, as we predicted three months ago (perhaps just a tad early) that a slowdown was coming. It probably should have happened in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic caused a rush of companies to boost their cloud services, as remote work suddenly made a move to the cloud essential for many businesses.

More recently, though, the largest businesses with the most complex workloads are shutting down or putting off major projects, and cutting their spending on the cloud-computing power they would have needed to support hem.

“There are three parts to the cloud slowdown,” said Maribel Lopez, principal analyst at Lopez Research, who joined MarketWatch in predicting a cloud-spending slowdown earlier this year. “One is related to reigning in and rationalizing the Wild West of spending that companies did during COVID to keep the lights on,” which is leading to the cutbacks we see now. Second, recent waves of cloud workloads by the industries that are still slow-rolling their move to the cloud — such as government, healthcare and education — “are the most complex, time consuming and challenging to move to the cloud quickly.” Lastly, is a general fear related to the macroeconomic environment, leading to cuts anywhere executives can find them.

Read also: The cloud boom is coming back to earth.

Wall Street has reacted swiftly and strongly, ripping more than $300 billion in market cap away from just Microsoft and Amazon this week, if Amazon’s steep decline in Thursday’s after-hours session persists. But this is where it helps to think about a longer-term view: Just because cloud growth is declining does not mean that the technology is still not core to the future.

Microsoft and Amazon will continue to develop and sell their cloud-computing offerings, and they will see healthy margins on them. Google is continuing to invest in its cloud business, adding 2,000 new employees via its acquisition of Mandiant last quarter, and executives said this week that businesses and governments are still in the early days of public cloud adoption.

“We’re pleased with the momentum in Cloud and do continue to be excited about the long-term opportunity,” Alphabet Chief Financial Officer Ruth Porat told analysts this week.

Many analysts agree. Dan Ives, an analyst with Wedbush Securities, said this week in a note about Microsoft that “the shift to cloud is still less than 50% penetrated.” Growth is slowing as inflation continues and the strong dollar outside the U.S. hits the revenue lines of many tech giants, causing many companies to pause in their spending, but that is a short-term problem.

Moving to a cloud provider is not for the faint of heart, and it is a transition that in some cases takes longer than expected. The same will hold true for investing in the cloud for the long term, even as there is some pain now. It’s still a massive and important part of the tech sector, an essential business that enabled companies to keep operating around the world during the pandemic. Whatever the future growth rate, the cloud appears here to stay.

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